Boomers Grew Up With Spy Culture

As of this writing, the U.S. has shot down four unmanned objects over U.S. airspace in the past two weeks (well, one was in Canada), with one being identified as a Chinese spy balloon. It’s probably safe to say that countries have been spying on one another for as long as there have been countries. Yet for some boomers, like Mister B, the goings-on of the past couple of weeks are a bit of, as Yogi Berra used to say, “Deja vu all over again.”

Boomers grew up hearing about spies all through the Cold War; It permeated our popular culture in toys, books, TV and movies. If anything, spycraft was glamorized in movies like the James Bond series (boomer years 1962-79), while boomers gleefully watched TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68), I Spy (1965-68) and Mission: Impossible (1966-73). The whole process of spying was also satirized in the TV show, Get Smart (1965-70), as Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale on The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show (1959-64) and in the margin-drawn comic, Spy vs. Spy, in Mad Magazine (from 1961 throughout the boomer years).

Yet before the boomer-era infatuation with spies and spying could cement itself into pop culture, a CIA U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia on May 1, 1960. The secretive nature of the plane’s missions meant only partial news made it to the general public at the time. The initial reports released by the government stated a NASA weather plane had gone missing over Turkey. It was Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev who revealed to the world that the plane was not a NASA plane and it had been shot down in Soviet airspace.

The story actually began in 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower was President. Critics of his administration feared that there was a growing gap in military power between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. As a result, in November of 1954, Eisenhower secretly authorized that 30 U-2 spy planes be built and delivered to the CIA for the purpose of high-altitude reconnaissance. The U.S. would look to gather data on what capabilities the Soviet Union had, and what they might be building.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, an Air Force pilot contracted by the CIA, was flying a U-2 plane over Soviet airspace when the plane’s autopilot malfunctioned and he took over manual controls to fly it. When documents on the incident were declassified in 1982, it was confirmed that a near-miss of a Soviet surface-to-air missile took out the tail control of Powers’ plane, causing it to plummet to the earth in a spin. Powers knew he could not eject from the plane under those conditions, but did manage to escape the cockpit and parachute safely to the ground. However, he was not able to destroy the plane, which brought criticism to him from many angles.

His subsequent capture and interrogation by Soviet officials could not have come at a worse time. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, French President Charles de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were set to meet at the Four Powers Paris Summit on May 15, 1960. The first day of the summit, Krushchev demanded the U.S. stop flying spy planes over the Soviet Union. When Eisenhower agreed only to a temporary suspension, the two leaders were furious with each other, and the summit was cancelled the next day.

Powers was tried and convicted of espionage in August of 1960, sentenced to three years imprisonment and seven years of hard labor. After serving one year, in February of 1962 he was exchanged for a Soviet spy imprisoned in the U.S. named Rudolph Abel, on a Berlin bridge between East and West Germany.

Hearings in the U.S. Congress absolved Powers of any wrongdoing. In 1965, he was awarded the CIA Intelligence Star. Powers left the CIA and worked as a test pilot for Lockheed until 1970, when he became a traffic pilot for radio station KGIL. Next, he became a pilot reporting on traffic for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. On August 1, 1977, his helicopter crashed when heading back after a report, killing Powers and his cameraman.

The U-2 incident and Powers’ release was dramatized in a movie, Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks, in 2015.

You’d have to be an earlier-age boomer to recall the incident first-hand, as Mister Boomer does. What do you recall about the Powers’ U-2 incident, boomers?

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